“If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot ” Matthew 5:13
Reading the Bible in church sometimes breaks up the flow of what is said to the point where the emphasis or even the meaning can be lost; so it is with Saint Matthew Chapter 5. The Beatitudes, verses 1-12, become cut off from the verses that follow that are a warning to us about being salt and light and being thrown out if we are not the people we are expected to be.
Salt was not about adding flavour, about making something more tasty; salt in Jesus ‘ time was about preserving things from going bad, about getting rid of impurities. Jesus is saying to his followers that they are to be people who stop the bad and drive out the evil in their own times. His words should be a challenge to our church in the first week of a general election campaign, but somewhere along the way the church lost its saltiness.
The faith of those who listened to the Sermon on the Mount; the faith of those whom Jesus promised eternal rewards because of their self-sacrifice and their facing persecution, seemed to disappear in the early centuries and a new sort of church emerged. The Christianity of the Cross had faded away, the meek discipleship of people like those from Galilee did not suit the powerful people who now declared themselves to be ‘Christians’. By the time of the emperor Constantine, at the beginning of the Fourth Century, Christianity was well-established. Christianity had become the religion of the powerful and the respectable; saltiness was no longer part of the faith of the church.
By the time of the Crusades, the Cross had become not an emblem of suffering and shame, but of dominance and power; to Moslems in the Holy Land it was a symbol of aggression and merciless violence. Christians had forgotten the roots of their faith; they had forgotten the Jesus who was an outcast and a reject and whose death was a scandal; they had forgotten the faith that Saint Paul proclaimed as “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. It was inconceivable that any of the medieval popes would ever behave as the last and the least of all; inconceivable that church wealth and power would be readily surrendered. The bad and the evil had eliminated the last trace of the salt.
Christendom became the order of things, Christendom was that state of affairs where the Church and state were joined seamlessly together. Even when the Reformation took place in Europe, a Catholic Christendom was simply replaced by a Protestant Christendom. The Church was about power and influence and respectability, it was not about a Galilean carpenter hanging on a Cross.
It is hard to look at what the church became and see any sign of Jesus of Nazareth. The church took little heed of Jesus’ warning. It was afraid to challenge people to commit themselves to the sort of discipleship of which Jesus speaks.
We forget Jesus’ calling us to be salt and light in our own times when we lose sight of the Cross. Whatever language we might use about those awful hours in Jerusalem, the Cross brings us back to the physical reality of what Jesus endured for us. A church that was fully committed to the Jesus who dragged his Cross to Calvary would be very different from the Church we know. It is hard to imagine that Jesus would recognize much that goes on in his name. The Cross is very troubling for the Church. The Cross is ‘I’ crossed out; it contradicts all ambition and hierarchy and power and influence—no wonder it is not liked., but when we turn away from it we lose our saltiness, we lose the power to bring change.
Being true to the Cross means remembering Jesus as he was, it means embracing a faith where the first will be last and the last will be first. The persecutions of which Jesus speaks aren’t things we actively seek, they come as part of the package in following a man who was despised and rejected. If we hold the verses together instead of breaking them up in our Sunday readings, we see that the call that for us to be salt and light follows immediately upon Jesus warning his followers of what will happen when they follow him.
He doesn’t offer an easy option for those who don’t like the way of the Cross; self-sacrifice is rewarded, but self-sacrifice there must be. Christians in the first centuries were not troubled by being scandalous. They were on the edge of society. When they were excluded from the Jewish synagogues near the end of the First Century, they became a radical and underground group. They faced a series of persecutions because of their refusal to deny Jesus, but the Christian Gospel was so strong that no persecution was ever going to be successful.
If the church in our own time is in decline, we need to ask ‘why’? Maybe it is because we have lost our saltiness.
“If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot”. A challenge to all of us.